On the 40th anniversary of everyone’s favorite franchise, we look back in wonder at the fandom that keeps on giving.
40 years ago, a long time ago, our culture changed. Star Wars (later to be re-branded A New Hope, but dang it, it will always be just Star Wars to me) birthed a new level of relentless fandom that forever altered the economics of the Hollywood assembly machine. A society bogged down in political frustration and disgust, could no longer bear the weight of radically charged entertainment.
While Vietnam and the Nixon White House would produce some of the richest and morally motivated acts of cinema (Easy Rider, A Clockwork Orange, All The President’s Men, etc.), it would also make way for Disco and the never-ending Rocky franchise. We may have one-time delighted us in eating our vegetables, but from 1977 on, we wanted to simply gorge on ice cream. I’m not here to judge; I’m a rotund optimist permanently imbibing on the myriad of fan theory websites, and often contributing to the torrent we’re all currently drowning under. I love it.
You would not be reading this website without Star Wars, and I sure as hell would not be writing for it without, not only the film, but also the hundreds of action figures I’ve collected, the on-theme clothing I’ve garnished myself in, and the decade-old boxes of mildewed C-3PO’s cereal I currently have rotted away in the back of my closet (shhh! Don’t tell my wife!). While I am on board with your cineaste declaration that the 1970s produced some of the finest examples of the art form, and we are gearing up for another necessary wave of pointedly critical cinema, I am still a proud child of George Lucas.
For me, there was no life before Star Wars. In childhood, it shaped my every conscious and subconscious thought…Forget childhood, the Skywalker saga consumed most of my intellect well through my teenage years and into my early twenties. Then it was time to party like it was 1999 (cuz it was), and The Phantom Menace had me reconsidering all my previous life choices. What do you do with Jar Jar Binks in your life? How do you incorporate a metaclorian supplemented Anakin Skywalker into your complicated attraction for Darth Vader’s samurai tyrant? The reality is that I couldn’t deal with the prequels. And you certainly don’t want me sitting on your couch, and working out my impossible-to-shut-up-about feelings of despair here. We have The Force Awakens now; I need to leave the summer of 1999 to the past.
The true importance of Star Wars is how awesome, and addictive it is to unpack the cobbled mythology behind the storytelling. It is a gateway narrative that will lead you down a historical path littered with classical literature (Joseph Campbell, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov), master filmmakers (Fritz Lang, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Ray Harryhausen), and B-movie icons (Flash Gordon, The Fighting Devil Dogs). Once you start poking around, you cannot stop, and before you can say “May The Force Be With You,” you’re relating the world’s religions through the superior wisdom of Yoda.
That Womp Rat hole was also the first excuse for a lot of us to delve deeper into the process of creation. Sure, the first man you look towards is George Lucas. But once you plow through the early efforts (American Graffiti, THX-1138) of this USC grad turned pop culture puppet master, and skim through his often reserved interviews in which he vaguely alludes to his inspirations, there is honestly not a lot of meat to chew on beyond the original trilogy.
Lucas is weirdly Lynchian in this fashion; he would much rather let his work speak for him than drone on in some late night talking head segment. When I was younger, this mild-mannered act would often infuriate, but my inability to infatuate over Lucas drove me to the unsung heroes of Star Wars.
The first behind-the-scenes maestro, a lot of us, gravitated towards was Ralph McQuarrie. A friend of a friend linked Lucas with McQuarrie, and after completing production on American Graffiti, the two partnered up to create the original concept designs for Star Wars. McQuarrie’s first completed painting depicted a
McQuarrie’s first completed painting depicted a Metropolis-inspired C-3PO wandering the Tatooine desert while the Swiss Army bot, R2-D2 trailed behind. This Threepio sports a beautiful, serene expression conveying a lost gaze of befuddlement, but is still waiting for Anthony Daniels to fulfill that barely tolerable personality. While the eventual creations would vary from these initial sketches, all of McQuarrie’s paintings contain the building block ingredients we’d forever obsess over. More importantly, the discovery of McQuarrie was also the discovery of a dozen other famous conceptual artists. From here I ventured into Syd Mead (Alien, Blade Runner), Frank Frazetta (Mad Max, Fire & Ice), and Disney’s Nine Old Men.
Ben Burtt was probably the biggest deep cut I encountered in my love affair with Star Wars. The most famous sound designer in the business cut his teeth on Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 but found his way into this tiny science-fiction film because of his association with USC. The very first sound effect he crafted for the film was that of the most iconic weapon in movie history. Inspired by McQuarrie’s drawings of the laser sword, Burtt’s lightsaber was born out of the projection booth. He recorded the interlock motor of the USC Simplex projector while it sat idle to capture the lightsaber’s hum. By accident, Burtt discovered that while walking by a television set with his microphone, the picture tube produced a buzz, and when combined with the projector effect, the tone of the lightsaber was born. To achieve an additional sense of movement, Burtt played that sound over a speaker then took another microphone, and waved it around against it. If he whipped the microphone, he would pick up the doppler shift, the pitch would change, and it created the sense of the lightsaber cutting through the air. That resulting static charge of swordplay defines the swashbuckling adventure of the series.
Running down the rest of the production credits reads like a laundry list of talent that has fashioned every movie we’ve preoccupied ourselves with in the last 40 years. From the visual effects department arose Dennis Muren (E.T., Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, The Force Awakens), John Dykstra (Spider-Man, Godzilla, The Hateful Eight), Phil Tippet (Dragonslayer, Robocop, Starship Troopers), and Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Total Recall). Then you have a series of old hats making all these young whippersnappers looks so damn good. Gilbert Taylor was Roman Polanski’s go-to cinematographer at the time; having shot Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, MacBeth as well as Hitchcock’s final film, Frenzy, and the genuine masterpiece that is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Paul Hirsch was one of four editors to work on the film (including Lucas’ then-wife, Marcia Lucas who made time in the film when she wasn’t cutting Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York), and he has since gone on to assemble nearly every Brian DePalma film as well as Duncan Jones’ last two efforts.
Star Wars was a tremendous gift to us geeks. It was our creator as much as anything else. While space battles, galactic hustling, alien shenanigans, and sci-fi smooching was nothing new to cinema, the level of earnestness that George Lucas brought to the material was incredibly fresh. This was not kids’ stuff. Here was a space opera that took itself very seriously; fandom had been waiting on the fringes for someone to come along, and talk to them like adults. When the lines started to form around the blocks, we discovered that we were not alone. The time we’d spent engorging ourselves on books, movies and comic books was validated.
Our only rightful response to this validation was to give ourselves completely over to George Lucas and his legacy. Star Wars has shaped all of our lives whether we wanted it to or not. There is no going back. No matter how frustrated I may have gotten over The Phantom Menace, or how concerned I may be with the thrill being squandered by Disney’s yearly release schedule, I must bow down in respect to the life it has designed for me. I owe all my heroes to Star Wars. This is not a hobby, it’s an obsession, and I cherish it.